The Long Tail

This year my holiday reading list wasn't very long - I was too busy on the beach trying to follow the UK election on my phone (a sign of the times, eh). Nonetheless I did get to read one book: 'The Long Tail' by Chris Anderson.

In this fascinating tome, Anderson highlights how in this new-fangled age of e-commerce, online retailers are actually making more money out of selling lots of individual niche products than they are from selling hits. The classic example given in the book is Amazon: in a given week they may sell thousands of copies of a particular Coldplay album, but during the same time they will sell far more albums by a variety of less-well known artists.

This creates the 'long tail effect', which is illustrated in the diagram below. On the left hand side of the graph you see the million-selling acts, seemingly way more popular than everybody else. On the right hand side you see the 'long tail' of all the other less popular niche artists that don’t sell as many copies of their albums. But because digital distribution has allowed literally anybody to sell albums online, there are now so many niche products available for sale that the tail goes on and on and on…until all the products that sell one or two copies a year actually generate more profit, when considered together, than the hits that might sell millions in a year. The little guys actually pack more of a sales punch.

This is great, obviously, for Amazon and other online retailers - all they have to do is stock as much stuff as possible. But what are the implications for all the niche artists - like yours truly? Well, to be honest, I don’t think the long tail effect helps niche artists that much in strict retailing terms. The best application of 'the tail' for generating music sales is probably to make as much of your music as possible available to buy – somebody’s going to want to buy that alternative nu-metal-emo-dance remix you did of some crappy B-side, so why not let them (the downside though is that putting ropey content out there may not be great for your artistic integrity or image).

However, what may help musicians a bit more is another long tail effect: the long tail of media. If you look again at the chart above, and this time think of the left-hand side of the graph as containing the big publications – national newspapers and magazines – and the right hand side of the chart as containing the bloggers (or online content creators), it becomes clear that the bloggers actually have a bigger readership than the traditional media. A country may have 10 national broadsheets, which will be read by millions of people a day, but millions of people in that country will be creating content on blogs or social networks every day which is read by 10 or more people a day.

Needless to say it’s fantastic for bands if they can get into conventional print publications – as this is brilliant for profile and will no doubt also influence what bloggers are writing about – but it’s bloody hard. In the absence of success in that area, the long tail of media points to an alternative strategy for musicians who need exposure. This is to convince a critical mass of bloggers and other content creators to advocate their music. This is not by any means an easy process – it requires a lot of targeted approaches, and a lot of email-writing, but if done properly, at least it offers some exposure instead of none. The digital revolution has created a situation whereby decent bands who had no hope of getting national press can now at least get their music written about and crucially, heard by a potentially large audience.

Of course, this probably fuels the creation of demand for niche music - and helps Amazon sell more of it. So perhaps the biggest lesson of all this is that if you're in a band you should probably give up now and go work for Amazon!

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What's Rupert up to?

There's a bit of a buzz going round the newspaper industry right now which involves, rather predictably, Rupert Murdoch. He's been intimating a lot of late that free online news content might soon become a thing of the past, at least where his News International titles are concerned.

Well, good luck to him. Rupert may have been pretty shrewd with regard to his business dealings in the past - and this is possibly why the press are taking this idea seriously - but in the long run, I can't possibly see this idea of paying for news content working. Here's why:

Firstly, the internet doesn't respect copy protection. Once one person has content, countless other people do, because copying and distributing a file is insanely easy. There has been much energy expounded and cash spent by record companies to copy-protect their content - and all in vain: getting free albums is easier than ever (legally or illegally). There is nothing to suggest that the newspaper industry would be any more successful in putting a wall around text, which from a technical viewpoint is even easier to copy than music.

The second reason that copy-protecting newspapers will not work has to do with something that - somewhat ironically - Murdoch is very fond of: competition. Even if he finds a viable way to protect his content, where will that leave him? Competing against a bunch of other news organisations that are all offering their content for free. He's partly aware of this, which is why his titles are attacking the BBC so much for publishing free news content...but even if the Beeb was forced to remove or scale back its online news (not entirely unthinkable if the Tories get in next year), there would still be thousands of alternatives delivering quality, free, online news output. And that's before you even consider the blogosphere, an increasingly trusted source of news and comment (if all the big newspapers were to put their content behind a wall, bloggers would have a field day).

Before charging for his content, Murdoch would do well to check out a book called 'Free: The Future of a Radical Price' by Chris Anderson. In it Anderson shows how companies are increasingly using the power of free services or content to access new markets and generate profit. The classic example he cites is Ryanair: it gives its flights away for free in order to sell a bunch of other stuff: car hire, travel insurance, accommodation, train tickets, bus tickets, scratch cards, credit cards...the list is endless. But to date it has worked, albeit at the expense of horrible flights for its customers. And the reason that it has worked is that in truth Ryanair is not actually an airline but a provider of travel services (and anything else it can flog). The free flight is the turnkey that unlocks other - and very big - markets for the company.

And digitally, the power of free content is even more pronounced. Because of its cost-free, copy-and-paste nature, digital technology effectively creates unlimited supply. And as any economist knows, when there's unlimited supply, the price of what's being supplied will drop to zero; it cannot but become free.

Murdoch - and any other digital content provider - can try to fight this; but it's a losing battle. Whether you're a rock band, a filmmaker or a journalist, you simply have to face the fact that the internet is going to make your content available for free, whether you like it or not. Content creators have a choice: to restrict content, and put themselves at a massive disadvantage, or to think creatively as to how they can unleash the power of free content and distribution. It amazes me that somebody as savvy as Murdoch isn't aware of this, and it makes me wonder if there is some ulterior motive behind his floating of his idea of charging for content. It'll be interesting to see how it pans out.

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